Rebirth of Reason


Objectivism: Not Just a Better Set of Rules
by Joseph Rowlands

The classic Objectivist example that displays the contextual nature of the virtues is a man asked by a murderer where his would-be victims are hiding.  Let's pretend it's his family that is hiding.  The example highlights the fact that honesty is not some set of rules that you follow blindly, regardless of the results.  If the man tells the truth, the murderer will kill his family.  If he lies, they might be able to get away.  If he says nothing, the murderer may kill him.

Let's pretend that the man tells the truth, sacrificing his family for the sake of honesty.  Is it appropriate to say that the man was practicing the virtue of honesty?  Is it appropriate to call his actions virtuous?  Can the needless destruction of your values ever be considered virtuous?  The answer should be obvious.  No.  He is not being virtuous.

Why isn't it virtuous?  After all, the reasons behind the virtue still apply even in that context.  He still has to create a fake version of reality and try to act according to it.  He still has to fear getting caught.  He still clutters his mind with the unreal.  And on and on.  The causal connections between means and ends may still be valid in this situation, but the values being pursued are insignificant compared to the costs.  A 'virtue' that sacrifices a greater value for a lesser is not a real virtue.

The lesson here is that you can't divorce a virtue from the ends it pursues.  A virtue, or morality in general, can't be judged outside of the context of a person's life.  Whether a man promotes his life or destroys it is the standard by which we judge the morality of his actions.

And yet, this is often not recognized.  People talk about "acting morally" when they say that a person followed the virtues, not caring what results came of the actions.  People talk about "being virtuous" without reference to the outcome or the values being pursued.  Following the rules is considered good enough.

I once argued with someone on whether Objectivist virtues were based on rules or principles.  If they're rules, then you have to follow them just because.  If they're principles, they causally connect a means to a set of ends.  A rule says "You must do X" while a principle says "If you want Y, you must do X."

He eventually argued that he was discussing principles.  He phrased it something like "If you want to live a moral life, you must do X."  That's not really a principle, though.  It doesn't specify a value that is achieved by performing X.  There's no causal connection presented.  It's really just saying that if you want to be moral, you have to follow the moral rules.

Examine that perspective on morality.  Morality ceases to be a tool for living, and becomes an end in itself.  You follow these rules to be moral.  Your goal is not to live a good life, but to be a moral person.  Morality is abstracted away from life, and judged without reference to it.  You judge morality by how well a person followed the rules, and you never need to check to see if he actually benefited from it. 

This was embodied in the discussion of moral perfection on SOLO recently.  The notion of moral perfection was aimed at whether a person obeyed the morality, instead of whether he actually benefited.  It's as if the means were elevated above the ends.  The discussion of moral perfection didn't revolve around making choices that best promoted a person's life.  It focused on whether people were able to consistently follow the rules.  The means were elevated above the ends.  The tools of life were being treated as more important than life.

This view of morality disconnected from life is more widespread than this one example.  Some people focus their discussions on whether they are moral or immoral, not caring whether their actions promote their own lives.  Others have argued that virtue is its own reward, and that the achievement of values is not a necessary component of virtue.  Or there's the view that virtues can't be practiced to greater or lesser degrees, setting a minimum which divides morality with immorality.

Perhaps they think that Objectivist morality is just another set of rules, just like other obedience-based moralities.  They may even believe that it's a better set of rules.  They can argue that since the rules are designed to enhance your life, the rules work better in practice.  And they may think that because the rules are thought through and proved to be valid ahead of time (ignoring context and application), then you can follow them blindly and without reference to the results to your life.

Those who view morality as an end in itself are not concerned with life.  They're concerned only with appearances.  They seek the symbols of a well-lived life, confusing cause and effect, and thinking those symbols are the same thing.   They believe that blindly following rules will inevitably lead you to successful results.  They're looking for easy answers and moral satisfaction without the need to earn it.  They're worshipping form over function.

This is a gross distortion of Objectivism.  Objectivist morality is a tool for living, and you can't judge morality without reference to your life.  The virtues are tools to pursuing value, not rules to obey so you can call yourself moral.  Your moral tools are contextual, and must be understood in relationship to your life.  And most importantly, the focus is on living your life, not on avoiding immorality.
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